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Agreement opens door to the Philippines

May. 3, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Survival of the fittest at PHIBLEX 14: Philippine
Cpl. Stephen Waszak, right, and Jimmy Seriote, a Philippine marine, set a snare during survival training at Amphibious Landing Exercise 2014. Marines could start deploying to the Philippines on a rotational basis. (Lance Cpl. Jose Lujano/Marine Corps)
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The new United States agreement with the Philippines clears the way for the Pentagon to invest in new construction and infrastructure there, setting the stage for Marines to conduct more rotational deployments while staying in U.S.-built facilities along the shores of the contested South China Sea.

The 10-year agreement that was finalized with President Obama’s visit to the Philippines on April 28 will result in an “enhanced rotational presence” in the country, according to Pentagon officials. Yet the deal specifically states that the U.S. will “not establish a permanent military presence or base” like the one maintained for decades at Subic Bay.

Marine Corps officials say there’s no immediate plan to boost its number of rotational deployments in the Philippines. But experts say more Marines will likely rotate through the country under the new agreement, possibly even evolving to a semi-permanent and regular rotation like the one in Darwin, Australia.

At the least, it will provide an opportunity for the Marine Corps to forward-base equipment in the Philippines, and keep communications set up in the country in somewhat permanent structures. Access to ports could also give the Navy more options for maintenance in the region.

On a broader scale, it provides the Philippines and other partner nations in the region more confidence in the commitment of the U.S. to the Asia-Pacific region, said Dakota Wood, a retired lieutenant colonel and senior research fellow for defense programs at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

“Long-standing allies like Japan, [South] Korea and others have been looking rather nervously at what the U.S. has — or hasn’t — been doing in places like Syria and Ukraine,” Wood said. “When you turn back to Asia ... [some are wondering] is the U.S. serious about remaining engaged in that area?”

Still, there’s concern within the Philippines that the agreement wasn’t carried out lawfully and that it provides a lot of benefit to the U.S., but not enough to the Philippines, said retired Air Force Col. Carl Baker, who studies the Philippines closely as the director of programs at Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies. It’ll be important to follow how that gets sorted out domestically, he said, because it could establish further guidelines the U.S. might have to follow in all of this.

As it stands, the deal will give the U.S. greater access to Filipino ports, airfields and military bases. The rotational presence could, in effect, leave U.S. military assets and personnel on the ground in the Philippines for long periods if the missions are approved by the government in Manila.

Still, the rotational presence may result in some troops returning temporarily to the facilities historically used by the American military, such as Naval Station Subic Bay and Naval Air Station Cubi Point, both strategically located on the northwest coast, or Clark Air Base near Manila. Those facilities were a backbone of logistics support during the Vietnam War and continued to host U.S troops until the early 1990s.

That could become the case again with the Navy possibly being permitted to make port calls and use the naval stations for maintenance and logistics support, Baker said. There could be some buildup of amphibious exercises given the renewed access, but much of what the U.S. military does there, especially early on, will be geared toward humanitarian assistance.

“I think one of the things the United States will work on hard is showing that the Philippines do benefit from this,” Baker said. “A way to do that is, of course, through local community civic action, so exercises that actually benefit the population and that demonstrate the ability to respond to natural disasters.”

Since the presence of U.S. troops is still politically sensitive for the Philippines, a former U.S. colony, Marines and sailors who are sent there on rotations won’t be greeted with a trail of rose petals, Baker said. But they won’t be completely unwelcome, either, since they were quick to assist in situations like last fall’s typhoon, and their presence is also good for local communities, he added.

Many see benefit in the partnership as well, as the government is increasingly concerned about China’s growing influence in the region and Chinese interests in fishing, oil and gas rights in the South China Sea.

Two areas that would be of strategic interest to the U.S. that would allow access to the South China Sea are Brooke’s Point and Oyster Bay toward the southern part of the islands, Baker said. Local news outlets in the Philippines and Japan’s Kyodo News have reported that Marine Corps officials were interested in building advanced command posts on Palawan to monitor the South China Sea.

Baker said the agreement between the two countries should allow the Marine Corps to establish a standing command center they can use when they’re there, but said it’s doubtful they’ll set up barracks because they don’t want to send the signal that they are militarizing the country. Instead, he said it’s likely they’ll have more “bare base operations and barracks.”

The deal will allow the U.S. to invest in infrastructure in the Philippines, though, and potentially build sturdy storage facilities and aircraft hangars that could withstand the typhoons and flooding that are common in the region. Construction could also include port upgrades and headquarters and intelligence facilities.

Kirby said infrastructure improvements are among the details under discussion between the U.S. and Philippine government.

Soldiers and airmen will also likely be a part of the expanded mission in the Philippines during the duration of the 10-year agreement. The Air Force likely will rotate aircraft detachments, fighter jets as well as the cargo planes that would be central to humanitarian relief missions. And the Army is likely to seek greater involvement through its “Pacific Pathways” program, which aims to put more soldiers in the South Pacific.

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